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Meet the new boss

Egypt’s Islamist president is a fanatic. But his options are limited

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

30 June 2012

6:00 AM

On my first visit to Egypt, soon after Hosni Mubarak succeeded the assassinated Anwar Sadat as president, a cruel joke was circulating among Cairo’s cognoscenti. ‘When Nasser came to power, he looked around for the most stupid member of his party and appointed Sadat as vice president. When Sadat came to power, he looked around for the most stupid party member and chose Mubarak. But when Mubarak came to power, he looked around… and couldn’t find a successor.’

On this point, at least, Mubarak was prescient: there would be no successors from his clapped-out party. Instead, when the Egyptian people had the first chance to express their democratic will, they elected a parliament dominated by Muslim fundamentalists. And when it came to choosing a president, Egyptians opted for the lacklustre Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Mursi, over Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general and prime minister under Mubarak.

That was not how the Tahrir Square Revolution was supposed to end. Not, at least, in the view of the western political and media classes, who hailed it as the first shoots of liberal democracy in the Arab world. The reality is that there is no overwhelming taste for liberal democracy in Egypt, just as there is not in Syria, Libya, Yemen or Tunisia. Rather, the trend is towards a kind of 7th-century supernatural mysticism: xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-secular, anti-western and anti-Semitic. 

In spite of Mursi’s apparently emollient declarations after his victory was announced on Sunday — ‘I will be a president for all Egyptians’ —  he is emphatically not a man for all seasons. He is trusted by the Brotherhood precisely because he is regarded as being ideologically unbending, ‘an icon of the extremists’, says one source. Mursi pushed the Brotherhood into adopting a radical Islamist agenda and can be relied on to propel Egypt along a theologically conservative trajectory, while purging those who disagree with him. ‘There are people who think they’re the temple guards. He’s one of them,’ said one purge victim.

Mursi’s commitment to the cause is unlikely to ameliorate the condition of women or the concerns of the subservient Christian minority (he refuses to entertain the prospect of a future Christian president of Egypt). Nor do the Israelis draw comfort from his election. Just hours before his victory was announced, he told Iran’s Fars news agency he planned to improve ties with Tehran and reassess Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.


In fact, it is uncertain precisely how far Mohammed Mursi will be able to carry his bizarre dreams. The newly elected parliament was peremptorily dissolved by court order, ostensibly because of voting irregularities, while the military suspended the constitution and effectively neutered the presidency in what some see as a velvet coup immediately after the parliamentary success of the Islamists. 

When Mursi assumes office this week, he will be able to appoint a cabinet, but little else. His writ will not extend to the budget, internal security, foreign affairs or the military. The immediate future holds the prospect of a grim power struggle between the politicians and the generals who make up the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. The men with the guns — guardians of the nationalist-secularist revolution that catapulted Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952 — have held the Brotherhood at bay for 60 years. And, for the time being, the guns are likely to prevail. 

The military has much to lose by allowing the Islamists free rein. For one thing, the peace treaty with Israel has delivered more than $60 billion in aid from the reviled Americans over the past 30 years. That package now amounts to more than $1.5 billion a year. It is, admittedly, not much in the context of Egypt’s needs, but it is reckoned that Egypt’s military equipment will be obsolete within a year if an Islamist Egypt abrogates the peace treaty and the aid dries up. 

Given Mursi’s hopes for a rapprochement with Iran and his determination to revise the peace treaty, it was odd to hear the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, wishing him ‘success in the challenging task ahead’. Odder still to hear him declare that cash-strapped Britain ‘will support the Egyptian people and their leaders as they reinvigorate the Egyptian economy’. Really?

Standing on the lip of an economic volcano, Egypt is facing a catastrophe of Old Testament proportions which could silence even the forked-tongued rhetoric that characterises the Muslim Brotherhood leader. According to official statistics, Egypt’s economy grew by about 7 per cent between 2005 and 2008, before dropping below 5 per cent when the global economic crisis struck. The IMF is now predicting that growth will slow to 1.5 per cent this year, down from the estimated 1.8 per cent last year. Not only has political uncertainty, coupled with the global downturn, stifled investment and damaged trade, it has also seen a sharp fall in Egypt’s two major sources of foreign currency revenues: the Suez Canal and tourism.

An Egyptian news website reports that meat imports have fallen by 60 per cent over the past year, while bread is becoming scarce in some provincial cities. Bread protestors in Ismailiya, on the Suez Canal, burned cars and blocked a main highway. Similar demonstrations are said to have occurred in other towns close to Cairo. Meanwhile, goods that can be sold for hard currency — wheat, rice, butane, diesel fuel and sugar — have disappeared from government warehouses, apparently appropriated by corrupt officials. ‘Egypt,’ noted one observer, ‘is running out of food and, more gradually, running out of the money with which to buy it.’ Not good news in a country that imports half of its calorie intake.

Mursi’s cabinet may huff about the role of Sharia law and puff about the ubiquitous role of the army, but that will not change the stark fact that almost half of Egypt’s population is functionally illiterate and living on less than $2 a day, the poverty line. If the current rate of economic decline continues, all talk of an Arab Spring in Egypt will ring hollow when food rioters take to the streets to vent their rage at the state’s sclerotic ineptitude. At that point, the cunning generals might simply point to the newly installed Islamist political leaders and shrug.

Is help at hand? Perhaps. Egypt is not only the largest and most populous Arab state, but also the beating heart of the Arab world and pivotal to the stability of the region. At a time of rising Sunni-Shia tensions, the Saudis might be inclined not to be passive onlookers at the demise of a crucial Sunni ally. Ordinary Egyptians must hope so.


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